The team captains ought to get together sometime Sunday, assemble the entire team, then apologize to their coach, Ralph Friedgen, for their performance Saturday night against Virginia. With a New Year's Day bowl game on the line, and facing the closest thing Maryland has to a football rival, the players failed their coach in a shocking 48-13 upset loss at Scott Stadium. For the first time in the 24 games Friedgen has coached Maryland, the team failed to win a game it legitimately should have won.
This isn't intended as a swipe at Virginia, a pretty good team in its own right and loaded with talented young players and a fine coach. But once again, as he had in every previous game against an opponent other than Florida State, Florida and Notre Dame, Friedgen put his team in position to beat the opponent. That's what he does, week in and week out as well as any coach in college football. If the human resources are within shouting distance, Friedgen will coax a victory out of his boys. You could see it taking shape early Saturday night, too, in the way Maryland got receivers open, and in the way the proper defenses were called.
I don't like to criticize college football players because they're not pros. It's especially tough to criticize these Maryland players because they've played so well last year and this year, particularly in the eight-game winning streak that catapulted them back into the BCS New Year's Day picture. Collectively, it's a group of overachievers, a future pro here and there, but mostly grinders who give everything they've got. Not only have they been sharp in games, but in virtually all the practices the last two years.
But the fact is, that's the only way a marginally talented team can succeed. So the players betrayed themselves and their coach Saturday night and all week in practice. Open receivers dropped passes. Unblocked defenders blew tackles. Linemen were blown off the line of scrimmage as if they were playing a bunch of pros. Well-designed defenses weren't executed. The place kicker treated a chip shot as if he was kicking a 60-yarder and got what should have been an easy one blocked.
"It looked like we couldn't do anything right . . . and Virginia kicked butts," Friedgen said. "I'm crushed right now. How many times are you going to have an opportunity like this? That door was open for us and we couldn't take it."
The worst part is the Maryland coaches and players know exactly why they laid this egg. "We thought we could have a bad week of practice and still put it together on game day," all-American linebacker E.J. Henderson said. "We learned the hard way. We're not at the point where we can loaf around, have three bad days of practice and come out and play well against a good opponent."
So now, instead of going to the Sugar or Orange Bowl, Maryland will go to an It-Doesn't-Matter Bowl, one of those games during the holidays you stumble across only if you're surfing with the remote at just the right time. Thing is, Maryland football missed the chance to take a big step forward. Perhaps the Notre Dames and Oklahomas can afford these slip-ups. But in the chase to build an elite program, Maryland cannot. "We had a chance to win two [ACC] championships in a row and play in two major bowl games in a row and we blew it," Henderson said, summing it up quite nicely.
So how does Virginia fit into all of this? Presented with opportunities to bury an opponent, the Cavaliers did just that. They scored the school's most lopsided victory over a ranked opponent. See, their head coach -- Al Groh -- has been successful on the NFL sidelines, too. (He and Friedgen both have coached in the Super Bowl.) He, too, can get on a play-calling roll and embarrass an opponent with either power or precision football. Four of his 12 victories at Virginia have come against opponents ranked in the top 25, so Groh knows what time it is.
Still, Maryland had every chance to jump all over Virginia and blew it with a couple of completely unforced errors. After marching 80 yards on eight plays for a 7-0 lead on a wonderfully conceived screen pass from Scott McBrien to Chris Downs, Maryland forced a punt and again moved quickly into Virginia territory. The Terps failed on third and two, and some of us wondered if Friedgen, his offense so sharp, would go for it on fourth and inches.
He didn't because he wanted to walk away with what most coaches would consider automatic points and momentum. He sent in the perfectly capable Nick Novak for a 28-yard field goal and Novak boomed it right into the forearm of 6-foot-7 lineman Chris Canty. Instead of being 10-0, it became 7-3 when Virginia kicked a 47-yard field goal. Even so, a 14-3 Maryland lead was virtually on the board when Scooter Monroe, as open as a receiver can be, dropped a play-action touchdown pass that looked like you draw it up in a coach's clinic.
From then on, it appeared that if it wasn't going to be easy for Maryland, it wasn't going to be. McBrien threw an interception, Virginia scored on the next play. Maryland went three and out, Virginia kicked a field goal for a 13-7 lead. The Terps couldn't cover screen passes despite the defensive schemes putting defenders in perfect position and Virginia laid the wood to Maryland, increasing its lead from 20-7, then 27-7, then 34-7. And the mistakes were interspersed with dumb penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Yeah, we thought we could get back in it," Henderson said, "but Virginia stayed on top of us. They wouldn't let us get back in it." Part of the reason was Cavs quarterback Matt Schaub, who completed 23 of 27 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns. He didn't throw any picks, he wasn't sacked, his uniform wasn't even dirty. The kid was nearly perfect. He's 6 feet 5, 235 pounds and only a junior. Look out next season.
What a great waste of an opportunity for Maryland. Down in Raleigh, North Carolina State beat Florida State. With that, a Terps victory could have put Maryland in the national spotlight for a second straight January, which is exactly how you start landing the best recruits and getting the big dates on national TV, which enables you to land more big recruits and keep winning 10 games in a season.
"Our test now," Friedgen said, "is going to be, 'How are we going to react to this? Can we come back and win 10 games and finish this thing out right?' "